There was a knocking at the temple doors. The wood was bulging and everyone stepped back in anticipation. Crack! The doors burst open and a stream of enraged bulls, shoulder-to-shoulder, came tearing down the hill and into the street. It was terrifying…
After Lord Ram defeated the demon king Ravan and saved Sita, he returned to the kingdom of Ayodhya, his home, to find the city gleaming with light. To welcome Ram, his people had decorated Ayodhya with diya, small clay lanterns. Diwali celebrates Ram’s triumph and return.
Our Diwali started with less of a victory lap and more of a cautious tiptoe into Indian festival culture. We organized a choti Diwali at the program house with our cohort and homestay families. We hung paper chains from the walls and marigold garlands on the door frames. At the doorstep we worked together on a Rangoli – traditional art, in which patterns are created by scattering coloured flour on the floor. Our Rangoli (designed by Shweta) looked like a twisted flower wrapped around a multi-coloured cinnamon roll. As part of the pooja that followed, a kautuka, a red and yellow cotton string, was tied around our wrists, meant to “drive away fiends”. After the kautuka was tightly bound around my wrist, I learned from my homestay brother, Divyanshu, that you’re not allowed to take it off. “You must wait until it falls off.” He proudly displayed his wrist with 5 faded kautuka, “from many years ago, ” just barely clinging to his wrist.
Returning to my homestay, Divyanshu asked for help to light the diya. I didn’t have a lighter and so I used one diya to light the neighboring diya. Divyanshu shook his head, “No! Stop! In the next life, you will be reincarnated as a two headed snake!” While I was busy imagining my reptilian double-headed future, I realized he had stacked together seven diya and smiling, was lighting them simultaneously. ‘What are you doing?” I asked, perplexed. “I want to be a seven headed snake,” he said, “just like Lord Shiv’s seven headed naga.”
Diwali was filled with firecrackers of varying sorts – spinning tops made of sparks, small wool-covered boxes that would leave your ears ringing, rockets launched through the streets, and little cones that would create continuous fountains of sparks (the colony kids particularly enjoyed dancing underneath these ones). It was thrilling, but the continuous stream of explosions (while trying to eat dinner, brush your teeth, sleep etc.) would constantly leave you on edge. The night of Diwali I couldn’t sleep and so quietly made my way to the roof of our home. The city was alive, animated by Christmas lights, diya and fire in the sky. For a moment, I could imagine what it felt like to be Lord Ram returning home, even though I was thousands of kilometers away from my own home. The next day Udaipur looked like a war zone. Discarded packaging and used-up crackers littered the streets. Smoke hung in the air. Firecrackers are a major source of pollution in India, especially during Diwali.
As Diwali settled down, and the sound of crackers became more of an occasional pop and less of a continuous buzz, my homestay family and Sydney’s homestay family went to temple in a town around 60km from Udaipur. It was a festival dedicated to Lord Krishna. We had heard stories of the huge crowds that would converge every year. Our homestay siblings insisted on holding our hands as we waded through the crowds and made our way up through the narrow streets. We came upon a temple, around which monks and tourists stood expectantly, lined up so as to create a human corral leading down into the street. This is when hundreds and hundreds of bulls surged out of the temple. We were safe, our homestay families made sure of that. Sydney and I stood as far back as possible, but many were in striking distance of raised horns and grinding hooves. They seemed to be filled with a sort of overpowering awe at the sacred cows of Lord Krishna. It was terrifying at first, but upon closer inspection I could appreciate that the bulls horns were painted bright colours–from crimson to deep purple–and they wore peacock feather headdresses, golden bells clinked on their necks. It was a river of colour and sound. It was beautiful.